TV Time Review: “Man with a Camera”

Starring: Charles Bronson.
Notable Guest Stars: Sebastian Cabot, Yvonne Craig, Angie Dickinson, Gavin MacLeod.
Aired: Two seasons, from 1958 to 1960, on ABC.


The Premise

Bronson starring as Kovac with his 4" x 5" Graflex press camera.

In this series Bronson played Mike Kovac, a famous freelance photographer in New York City who did more than just portraits and product shots. He is basically a private investigator armed with a camera (or several) who sometimes works for the police and sometimes for private citizens who need evidence in order to get the police involved in their case. Sometimes he’s just out looking for material on which to base a spread in a magazine. Trouble is never far off.

Kovac deals with Lieutenant Donovan of the NYPD, played by James Flavin. He also get help from his father Anton, played by Ludwig Stossel, who is a portraitist in the old neighbourhood.

The subjects of his photos are organized crime figures, ex-cons, and women who have gotten themselves in over their heads with shady boyfriends.

My Lippy Remarks about Bronson’s Movies

First of all, Charles Bronson’s films are not considered high-brow cinema but I’m unashamed saying I’m a fan of them. My lack of shame is largely due to the fact that HoaiPhai is not my real name so I can claim admiration for his work without fear of personal attacks being very personal.

When I think about it, the story lines of his films from the ’70s and ’80s are pretty predictable. But, hey, nobody sits down to watch a Bronson flick expecting to have to think too much. Something happens and Bronson’s character kills whoever did it. He survives and, therefore, is the winner.

There were a couple of exceptions to this formula, notably The Valachi Papers, which was based on a book about the life of a real mobster who turned state’s evidence, and The Mechanic, in which he plays a hitman who trains an apprentice who ends up killing him. Some gratitude, huh?

The Valachi Papers was the first film I saw Bronson starring in and the violence it documents is much more graphic than that of his later movies, except possibly for The Evil that Men Do which had some pretty sick scenes but the film deals with state-sponsored torture, so the violence is not gratuitous in the sense that it’s there to make an ugly point.

Come to think about it, many of Bronson’s films can get you to thinking if you’re into that sort of thing. The Evil that Men Do and The Valachi Papers were both based on things that really happened and The Mechanic is about the life of a hitman, and they certainly exist. Telefon was about KGB agent Bronson who is sent to America to eliminate Soviet sleeper cell members who were rumoured to be stationed around North America in the real-life media and were feared to be a real risk, in much the same way that Islamist terrorist sleeper cells are thought to be living among us today. 

All his other non-western movies (I’m not big on horse-oriented flicks so I didn’t see these) showcase the Hollywood-style sanitized death. A dude gets shot, he jumps back a foot or two, he hits the ground, and the next thing you see him with his eyes closed and apparently well on his way to being a tenor in the choir invisible — no twitching, no gurgling, no death rattle. In The Mechanic Bronson ultimately dies (but don’t stop watching because the final couple of minutes are worth the wait), and that’s the big difference from his characters’ fates in later flicks — Bronson is pretty much invincible.

Even thought the action is always good in Bronson movies, the thing that really keeps it all together and interesting is Bronson himself. He always played a competent street-smart guy who didn’t particularly like violence but often had to resort to it in order to help good triumph over evil. He always played a level-headed tough guy with a soft spot in his heart for the underdog.

Back on Track: My Lippy Remarks about Man with a Camera

While there are similarities, Mike Kovac of the Man with a Camera series is not the same Bronson of his ’70s films. He regularly has to retreat, he gets slapped around by the bad guys, and on several occasions he gets knocked unconscious… in at least one episode he gets knocked out twice!

At the beginning of a couple of the episodes, Mike Kovac does a strange thing… he tries to convince the client that he’s not the right guy for the job. The exchange typically goes something like this (please try to imagine his lines being said in his voice):

Client: Mr. Kovac, I have a danderous assignment for you that no other private detective or photographer is willing to take. The police won’t help me either but if you could manage to get these shots, the cops will lay charges.

Kovac: “Danderous”?

Client: Sorry, I said “dangerous” but the blogger writing this is not much of a typist.

Kovac: Oh.

Client: So, will you take the job?

Kovac: [While unloading film from his camera he rolls up his sleeves to reveal oversized biceps] Sorry, but I cannot help you. Why don’t you take this to the police?

Client: What’s the matter, did some bad guy bop you in the noggin in the last episode or something? I just told you, they won’t talk to me until I have some proof.

Kovac: [He peels off his shirt revealing washboard abs and puts on a black rubber darkroom apron] Look, I’m just a freelance magazine photographer. This kind of thing is too dangerous for a simple shutterbug like me.

Client: Aw, c’mon! You’re my last hope, Mr. Kovac.

Kovac: [Turning away from the camera, he holds a negative up to the light in a pose similar to that of a bodybuilder. His back muscles ripple and twitch like a frog hooked up to a truck battery] Nope. I’m the type of guy who likes to come home alive at the end of the day.

Client: Pleeease?

Kovac: I told you no!

Client: Pretty please?

Kovac: [Rubbing film developer on his biceps] Well, OK. As long as you can assure me that the bad guy will crack me one in the back of the head when I’m not looking… I love surprises.

Client: I’ll do you one better, Mr. Kovac. I’ll pinky swear.

Kovac: Deal!

Younger viewers might find dialogue like this quaint and maybe even tiresome but remember, we consider this kind of stuff cliché because it is so firmly entrenched in the popular culture of yesteryear. At the time it was the contemporary style of talking, much like the sentence “I’m gonna snizzle a pixel with my Nizzle” [i.e. “I’m going to snap a picture with my Nikon” for you seniors out there] would be considered by today’s jumbo-sized-pants-but-no-belt-wearing audiences to be fully comprehensible and edgy.

The series also stands out in that a very young Bronson is the star. He was only in his late thirties when Man with a Camera was shot so he had not yet developed his signature leathery good looks that added credibility to the tough-guy characters he played in the ’70s and ’80s.

There were some interesting twists of the plot and the show addressed the social ills of the day, some of which persist today.

I have a funny feeling that this shot was flipped right to left.

Visually, the series is fun to watch. It’s all in black and white and often employs chiaroscuro, a lighting style that mixes light and shadow for dramatic effect. You’ll see all kinds of unbelievable things, like signs advertising a steak dinner for $1.25, a hotel room for $1.50, and talk of a $5 parking ticket. The vehicles didn’t have seatbelts and the women were tatoo-free. Kovac’s car even had a phone and a portable darkroom in the trunk years before James Bond’s Aston Martin took to the road.

Of course one of the main things that sold me, a certified shutter geek, on this show was all the great cameras. Kovac mainly used a Graflex press camera. I seem to remember seeing both the Crown Graphic and Speed Graphic, two almost identical cameras of the type that have bellows-mounted lenses that fold up to a package about the size of a pile of about ten iPads. The film packs held two 4 x 5″ sheets of film and yielded images of incredible quality, something in the order of hundreds of megapixels if they were measured digitally. I may have become physically aroused at the sight of this camera in action.

Kovac uses a bunch of other cameras depending on the application, opening the door to me justifying future camera purchases to Mrs. HoaiPhai. He uses a 120-format TLR (twin-lens reflex), a 35mm rangefinder, a Polaroid, and something he calls a “sequence camera”, essentially a 35mm rangefinder with automatic film advance which must have been a technological marvel back then. I seem to remember him hooking a camera up to take a time-lapse series.

When he wanted to be really sneaky, he had a camera built into a Zippo lighter and, of course, a Minox 8mm which is one of those push-pull spy cameras. One of the silliest scenes of the whole series is when Kovac takes pictures with the minox, which is hidden behind his tie. Every time he takes a shot he has to yank at his tie to advance the film… pretty dumb bad guy to have not picked up on this unless the thought Kovac was Rodney Dangerfield.

Conclusion

You might find this show dated but I really enjoyed watching this series which I bought on-line as a four-DVD box set for about $20. Seeing the special guest stars like Sebastian Cabot as a baddie, pre-Batgirl Yvonne Craig, Angie Dickinson before she was Police Woman, Gavin MacLeod playing a character with not much love in his boat was certainly a load of fun.

Someone should seriously consider remaking this series. With all the advancements in imaging it would make an amazing gadget-enhanced crime drama, either for TV or the big screen.

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About HoaiPhai

I'm up late digging up the dirt. View all posts by HoaiPhai

10 responses to “TV Time Review: “Man with a Camera”

  • elmediat

    Interesting post. I think the inspiration for this character is “Casey, Crime Photographer”, that appeared first in the pulps and on radio.

  • Hippie Cahier

    “There is nothing more solemn or legally binding than a good pinky swear.” (Abraham Lincoln)

    • HoaiPhai

      Generally, yes. However here in Canada there is the Royal Pinky Swear that involves spitting while the pinkies are intertwined. You have to get the Governor General’s approval for this, and pay a fee, but the official certificate looks lovely framed on the wall of your study!

  • mairedubhtx

    I seem to remember this show as a little girl.

    • HoaiPhai

      I was too young to remember this when it first aired and I don’t think we would have seen it even in reruns at our house because we couldn’t get American stations untill cable came into the picture in the late ’60s.

  • The Hook

    Bronson was The Man! GREAT, no, AWESOME post!

  • Mike Lilly

    I am using my real name, and so will therefore be unable to make any claims of fandom for Mr. Bronson either. Damn! I saw a boatload of his films when VHS came along, he was somewhat of a poor man’s Clint Eastwood and was quite popular amongst us backwoods Appalachian types.

    Great find on the TV series, who knew you could build a television drama series around photography? Would love to see some of those episodes.

    • HoaiPhai

      “Poor man’s Clint Eastwood”…exactly! His films were, and still are, popular with me and my brothers, and we grew up in suburban Montreal. I remember seeing The Mechanic and drooling over the cameras his character Arthur Bishop used. He had a Nikon with a Questar 3½” telescope mounted (that’s 1250mm) and a set of binoculars that could record images on 35mm film. we’re living in the pioneer era of digital photography and I really think a remake of Man with a Camera as a TV series would be great… imagine all the gadgetry!

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